116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Crouching down, Felix, age 4, pointed at a small crinkled shape embedded in the rocks at the Devonian Fossil Gorge.
'Hey look!” he yelled in excitement, beckoning his mother over to see the fossil, a prehistoric crinoid preserved in stone. 'I found a clue!”
Some 375 million years ago, this gorge adjacent to Coralville Lake was at the bottom of the sea. The small creatures whose fossils are preserved there are a remnant of that period.
Felix and his mother, Sus Kramer, were visiting from Kansas last summer, and I was on a mission to keep them entertained and engaged - I wanted to be the cool friend Felix was eager to see again.
So on a warm August day we headed to Coralville Lake and Lake Macbride to explore the Iowa Raptor Center and the Devonian Fossil Gorge.
At the gorge, we picked up a map near the entrance and made our way along the limestone landscape, climbing boulders and looking for the markers that matched descriptions of brachiopods, bryozoans and hexagonaria colonial coral.
Felix, hearing we were going to see fossils, had grown excited and started talking about dinosaurs. I was worried about disappointing him when instead of towering tyrannosaurus rex skeletons he only found the remains of tiny sea creatures, half buried in rock.
Luckily, this preschooler wasn't dwelling on T. rex. He joyfully ran from one marker to another, eagerly pointing out each new discovery.
The Devonian fossils are from a time when the land that is now Iowa was below the equator, more than 200 million years before dinosaurs roamed the earth. The gorge was covered by warm, shallow seas, similar in temperatures to the contemporary Caribbean Sea.
This geological window into the past was uncovered in 1993, when floodwaters overtopped the Coralville Lake dam. For 28 days, water rushed over the spillway, reaching 17,200 cubic feet of water per second and washing away a road, campground and 17 feet of soil and rock. The gorge was further widened during the Floods of 2008, when 19,500 cubic feet of water per second swept through the ravine.
I vaguely remembered visiting the gorge as a child, when it was a brand-new attraction, but I hadn't been back as an adult. It was worth the trip.
The day was sunny, and it was pleasant to walk along with greenery-strewn limestone, contemplating the sheer age and history under our feet.
The Devonian Fossil Gorge wasn't the only attraction we visited that day. We started the morning north of Coralville Lake, at the Macbride Recreation Area, where the Iowa Raptor Project cares for up to 20 birds at a time at the Raptor Center. All the hawks, eagles, owls and birds in their care are unable to be released into the wild for various reasons.
Sponsored by the University of Iowa Recreational Services and Kirkwood Community College, the center's goals are preserving raptor populations and habitats through education and awareness building, as well as through field research.
Once a month it hosts Family Day, with crafts, snack, activities and a chance to learn more about raptors.
As we walked up to the center, we saw a large turkey vulture named Aura standing on the grass. She spread her wings wide, posturing as Felix stared at her.
'She's really clever and has figured out it will get a reaction,” Raptor Center volunteer Kerry Wilson said.
Other volunteers and staff showed us other birds, some up close and out of their cages, some within enclosures. Felix eagerly stepped up to a board painted to scale with different bird wingspans and threw out his arms.
He wasn't a bald eagle - their wingspans can be more than 6 or 7 feet - though he could almost match a peregrine falcon.
In the flight cage, we got to see that wingspan in action, with an up close
and personal look at bald eagles. We also spent time in the bird blind, where we could observe smaller songbirds flocking to bird feeders.
Felix carefully held his breath, whispering comments, as deer delicately stepped up to the blind and stopped just a few feet from us to munch on corn.
As we headed to our car at the end of the day, Felix looked up at me.
'I want to go here everyday!” he exclaimed.
Visiting Coralville Lake
The Devonian Fossil Gorge isn't the only attraction at Coralville Lake, which is overseen by the Army Corps of Engineers. Here's what you need to know:
Disc golf: Find a nine-hole course at Turkey Creek near the Coralville Dam and an 18-hole course at Sugar Bottom Day Use area north of North Liberty.
Camping: The Dam Complex, Sandy Beach and Sugar Bottom Campgrounds offer more than 500 camp sites. Reservations: (877) 444-6777 or recreation.gov. For questions about the campgrounds and campsites, call (319) 338-3543 Ext. 6300 or send an email to email@example.com.
Mountain Biking: The Sugar Bottom Mountain Bike Trail, located at the Sugar Bottom Day Use Area, has nearly 10 miles of one-way trails winding through wooded valleys and prairies
with views overlooking Coralville Lake.
Boating: Coralville Lake has more than 5,000 acres of water for boating, water skiing and fishing. Before you launch, be sure to check out current lake levels at www.rivergages.com.
Beaches: Sandy Beach Day Use and West Overlook Day Use offer places to take a dip in the water, though there are no lifeguards on duty. There also is a beach at the Sugar Bottom Campground for registered campers and another at Sugar Bottom Day Use for anyone, which is located by the mountain bike trail and disc golf course.
Passes: Day use passes are $5 per vehicle or $20 per bus or commercial vehicle, or $2 per adult walking or biking in. Children under 16 are free. An annual pass is $40, and discounts for recreation fees and camping can be found at www.mvr.usace.army.mil/Missions/Recreation/Coralville-Lake.
Visiting Lake Macbride
The Macbride Nature Recreation Area has much more than just the Raptor Center. A 485-acre peninsula leased by the Army Corps of Engineers to the University of Iowa, it includes six miles of hiking and cross-country ski trails and camp sites. Details: recserv.uiowa.edu/facilities/macbride-nature-recreation-area or call (319) 624-3205.
The adjacent Macbride State Park, 3525 Highway 382 NE, Solon, also includes camping, bike and hiking trails, boating, fishing and a beach. The 812-acre lake is stocked with walleye, channel catfish and muskies.
Lake Macbride Boat Rentals is open Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, 9 a.m.
to 8 p.m. Monday to Friday and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, with boat rentals, concessions, bait and firewood. Details: (319) 624-2315.